Tuesday, May 25, 2021 | 14 Sivan 5781
Many of the arguments that divide contemporary Jewish life come down to different readings of what it means to be Jewish.
I want to offer some of my own thoughts on this. Before I do, let me preface these remarks with the reminder that Hazon, institutionally, doesn’t take “positions” on things. You can support Hazon, or work for Hazon, or attend any of our programs, whether you agree with what I write here, or disagree, or for that matter are baffled by what I write. In these emails I am thinking through some of the things that animate my own work, and sometimes providing context for things we do or don’t do, but you’re entirely free to disagree with anything I write. I strive to respond politely and thoughtfully to every person who replies to one of these emails, and I know from that experience that the range of views on a list as long as Hazon’s is considerable. Which is as it should be.
And so to our current struggles.
It may be that to be Jewish is to (a) strive never to distinguish between one human being and another, in any way, and (b) always to be on the side of the underdog. If these two things are true then there will be, quite literally, little basis to feel empathy for Israelis as opposed to Gazans, or to distinguish between a person killed by a rocket fired with murderous intent, and a person killed who was firing that rocket.
This perspective has solid Jewish roots. “Love the stranger because you were strangers” is arguably the central motif of the Torah. Every person is made “b’tzelem Elohim,” in the image of G!d; this is the radical idea at the very start of the Jewish story. These two concepts are central to Jewishness and, truthfully, one of the reasons I love Jewish tradition so much.
And if these were the sum total of Jewish tradition then we would indeed love all people equally, but with some bias in favor of any underdog.
But in fact, this is less than half the story. Of course each person is made in the image of G!d. But my partner, my parents, my kids, my siblings, my closest friends – they are not more entitled to (for instance) life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – but they matter more to me. Jewish tradition sees concern radiating out in concentric circles.
Covid has been a clear illustration of this. Very close to 3.5 million people have now died. I think that’s awful. But my concern has not been for these 3.5 million people in aggregate. It has been for Marc’s father, who died, having almost certainly gotten covid while in hospital for something else; and Naomi’s mother, who died of covid on the day on which, of all days, she was due to get her vaccine. I’ve known Naomi (and her mother) for 40 years, and Marc (and his father) for 36. They are not statistics; they are people I see in my mind’s eye, right now. My sadness at these two deaths, and my love for Naomi and for Marc – these are quite different from how I relate to covid statistics overall.
Thinking about this illustrates how a commitment to universalism and to loving the stranger are part of Jewish tradition, but not the only part. Here’s a key idea to think about: prejudice against is wrong; but preference for is not. This is a subtle distinction, but it is critical to the Jewish way. We can agree that to be prejudiced against someone is wrong. But where does that leave preference for? I grew up absolutely presuming – and regularly taught – that it was possible to both have a concern for Jewish people, and necessary that, in so doing, one not be prejudiced against anyone who was not Jewish. This has informed who I am and how I relate to the world for as long as I can remember. But to many people today the distinction seems not only to have been lost; it seems to have been reversed. The presumption now seems to be that to have a preference for – anyone; but especially in the current context, Israelis, or Jews – is necessarily somehow to be prejudiced against others – including, variously, Muslims, Palestinians, non-Israelis, non-Jews. This is both illogical and unhelpful. The line is a fine one, and at the margin, preference for can shade into prejudice against; indeed, it can even be a cover for prejudice against, so the need to strive not to be prejudiced against people (and to interrogate ourselves, truthfully and honestly, to see if we may be or could be) is important. Despite this – arguably because of this – it is vital that we not throw this distinction out the window.
And just one of the reasons that I think we should be careful is that this kind of abstract universalism – in which all people are not only equally entitled, but are equal in a way that supersedes actual human preferences – has a pretty dark history.
The French revolution, the Russian revolution; Christianity in the middle ages. Each was so concerned about “everyone,” and the salvation of everyone, and so clear about their own sense of rightness, and of everyone else’s wrongness, that they were willing to kill and maim and torture for their noble universal beliefs. Jewish universalism, by contrast, starts with me, and you, with radiating circles of concern, stepping cautiously, trying to do the best we can. We would indeed like to perfect the world, but we start panim el panim, face-to-face.
And so to this moment. I fear that an entire generation of Jewish education has gone somewhat astray; that we have young Jews, and young Jewish leaders – including rabbinical students, and professors of Jewish studies and Israel studies – who are at best uncomfortable with any expression of Jewish preference and who have signed their names to statements that are asymmetrical in their criticism of Israel and in what seems to me an absence of – at the very least, an insufficiency of – empathy, connection, or historical understanding. A friend of mine – liberal, progressive, humane; and a parent of young ones – said to me last week, well, I wonder what will happen when some of these folks become parents? Indeed.
And – yes – you don’t have to be a parent to imagine being a parent in Gaza, and how awful that must have been, these last two weeks. But some of the parents in Gaza were also people who on May 10th and 11th and 12th started firing rockets out of Gaza, randomly, to try to kill Israelis (Jewish or Muslim or Christian, young or old – they didn’t know and didn’t care) in response to demonstrations in Israel. Did they know that this would cause Israel to fire rockets in response? – of course they did. In this bizarre mirror-reality world, Hamas wanted those Israeli rockets to be fired, in order to rally support for their cause. That’s why they did this. I used to walk through Sheikh Jarrah, way back when, on Friday nights – it was safer than walking through Mea She’arim, because the girls we were with would get hassled in Mea She’arim for the length of their skirts. I don’t one iota like how this last Israeli government handled… almost anything, actually, including land disputes in Sheikh Jarrah. But you don’t respond to something you don’t like by lobbing out hundreds of missiles, unless indeed you want to start a war.
So, where do we go from here?
This goes very deep, very very deep, as we are seeing.
I do think we need a deep re-assessment of American Jewish education – not just “Israel education.” Our own liberalism and the liberalism of the wider culture are reinforcing each other right now. But I’m most interested in Jewish tradition when it challenges me, not affirms me; I’m interested in where it is different from western culture, not the same. (There is a strangeness to shmita, a series of complex radical interweavings, that are actually different from core presumptions in contemporary life. That’s part of why I find it so endlessly fascinating.) We need to develop curricula that, yes, can enable our children to treat each human being as in the image of G!d, and to be on the side of the underdog; and/but also to be able to say – are you Jewish? I’m Jewish… and from that to develop a frame from which to understand and validate preference and thus human solidarity; going from the particulars of my family, my community, my people, to the whole wide world.
And we also need to develop curricula that enable us to have actual substantive arguments with each other, and not have to agree. Let’s agree on things when we do agree, not because agreeing is the easy thing or, alternately, because disagreeing has become so scary.
I’m going to end with two stories, neither of them thus far reported upon.
One was at a small kibbutz in the north. The residents Jewish, the surrounding villagers Israeli Palestinian. Reasonable relationships in general in the past, but tense during the latter part of the second intifada. Since then, quiet. A week ago last Friday, ie the eve of Naqba, there were demonstrations at the kibbutz gate, so no-one could get in or out. The kibbutz is small and they don’t have guns on the kibbutz or means to protect themselves if attacked. They called the police and the police were too busy elsewhere to come out. A scary and tense moment for the people who lived there.
The next morning, on a different kibbutz, a long way away, residents woke up to graffiti on the wall of dormitories which house a program that brings Jews and Arabs (Muslims and Christians) together. The graffiti said “Arabs out!” – this on a liberal kibbutz which has a program that welcomes Arabs. There was, in fact, one Israeli Palestinian on the kibbutz who was justifiably scared and alarmed by this graffiti (which was photographed, reported to the police, and then erased by the people who found it.)
These two stories are deeply distressing, and they are the locus of much of what has been happening in this recent period. Young Israeli Palestinians, demonstrating, in the first instance; and (probably young) Israeli Jews, scrawling racist graffiti in the second. Society coming unglued, the news disturbing, fear and rage colliding in unpredictable ways.
But in both of these two cases, the story doesn’t end there. In the first kibbutz, a number of residents have good and longstanding relationships in the local villages. So some of the (Jewish) kibbutzniks phoned various (Muslim) neighbors to explain what was happening. In due course some of the grown-ups arrived and successfully encouraged the demonstrators to go home before things got worse.
In the second kibbutz, a solidarity gathering was held that night at the dorms and more than a hundred members of the kibbutz came to show their support for the students, determined to figure out what they needed to do, as a kibbutz, to respond; and determined, also, to make clear to the Palestinian(s) on the kibbutz that they were welcome to be there.
Every day we make these choices. Will we make things worse or make things better? Will we inflame, or reach out in love? Will we write graffiti, or scrub it out? I think we have to lean in. We must do so knowing that it is an imperfect world. It will be so tomorrow, and the day after. Urgency, and the desire for perfect solutions – this is noble, maybe, but so unrealistic as sometimes to be unhelpful. In the Middle East governments and quasi-governmental entities can legislate the absence of war – a ceasefire, let’s say – but they cannot legislate peace. This arises slowly, person by person, relationship by relationship. Peace in Northern Ireland these last twenty years has been inspiring; and yet the (predictable) fallout from Brexit now threatens it. The work of loving our own kin, and not being prejudiced against those who are not our kin – this never ends.
With all best wishes,